Aunt Julia

Aunt Julia
Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic 
very loud and very fast. 
I could not answer her — 
I could not understand her.

She wore men's boots 
when she wore any. 
— I can see her strong foot, 
stained with peat, 
paddling with the treadle of the spinningwheel 
while her right hand drew yarn 
marvellously out of the air.

Hers was the only house 
where I've lain at night 
in the absolute darkness
of a box bed, listening to 
crickets being friendly.

She was buckets 
and water flouncing into them. 
She was winds pouring wetly 
round house-ends. 
She was brown eggs, black skirts 
and a keeper of threepennybits 
in a teapot.

Aunt Julia spoke Gaelic 
very loud and very fast. 
By the time I had learned 
a little, she lay 
silenced in the absolute black 
of a sandy grave 
at Luskentyre. But I hear her still, welcoming me 
with a seagull's voice 
across a hundred yards 
of peatscrapes and lazybeds 
and getting angry, getting angry 
with so many questions 
Norman MacCaig

from The Many Days: Selected Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2011)

Reproduced by permission of Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd

Reproduced by permission of polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd.
Norman MacCaig

A poet who divided his life and the attention of his poetry between Assynt in the West Highlands, and the city of Edinburgh, Norman MacCaig combined ‘precise observation with creative wit’,  and wrote with a passion for clarity. 

Read more about this poet
About Aunt Julia

Introduced by a variety of writers, artists and other guests, the Scottish Poetry Library’s classic poem selections are a reminder of wonderful poems to rediscover.

Anna Gibson on 'Aunt Julia':

The poem that I have selected is MacCaig’s 'Aunt Julia', which reflects upon his relationship with his Gaelic-speaking aunt on the Isle of Harris.

Norman MacCaig was born in Edinburgh on the 14th November 1910, and divided the rest of his life between Edinburgh and Assynt, an area just north of Ullapool. He read classics at the University of Edinburgh, and was appointed a fellowship in creative writing at the same university in 1967. In 1970 he became a reader in poetry at the University of Stirling. Norman MacCaig had deep familial links to the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides which is where his mother was from. Like his Aunt (and unlike MacCaig) she could also speak Gaelic.

I chose this poem because growing up in contemporary Scotland, I relate to MacCaig's description of being unable to communicate with his aunt, and the differences that she embodied. The second stanza concentrates on her strangeness – she wears men's boots and engages in hard labour. She has a craft.

Aunt Julia is mostly described only as how she appeared to the author, who seems to know little or nothing about who she actually was. The personal information we are given about her character is about the way she talks, and the fact that she was frustrated by being unable to communicate with her nephew.

I too have often felt isolated from my own heritage. As I don't speak the native language of my homeland, I can only learn about the origins of my culture from what I can see. Language is so integral to culture that it almost impossible to understand a culture without understanding the language – especially when that culture is based upon an oral tradition.

Sadly for MacCaig, by the time he had learned enough Gaelic to be able to communicate with his aunt, she had passed away. Norman MacCaig lived until the 23rd of January, 1996.

Anna Gibson is an Edinburgh raised student currently studying at the University of Sussex. She collects dictionaries, and her overall ambition is to move to Paris and become a middle aged librarian.